Meditation

Practice, contemplation, and insights

Some Interesting Internet Reading (because I am all about the “big picture”)

I spend a lot of words on this blog extolling the benefits I have perceived in myself and in my students from the various yoga practices. I also candidly admit (when asked) that not all practices are for every one and certainly not all of the time.

It probably seems obvious that challenging asana would not be right in the presence of certain injuries or illnesses, even if asana practice, which is good for our strength, balance, and flexibility, among other things, is generally beneficial overall. Being an advanced practitioner entails in good measure being sufficiently sensitive and aware of our edge day by day and even moment by moment in our practice so that we expand our capacity to live life to the fullest without blowing past our edge out of ignorance, carelessness, or ego and needlessly injure ourselves.

What is more subtle is finding the same edge in meditation. I am not talking about physical discomfort sitting for meditation. That can be easily remedied with appropriate props, for example a cushion or chair. There can be such a thing as too much meditation or not the right type of meditative practice for certain practitioners or under certain circumstances. Going deeply into the self beyond the surface level of thought can release things that had been buried. We may not be surprised if we have nightmares or anxiety dreams when life is presenting us with lots of challenges and difficulties. It may be more shocking, though, if negative thoughts or emotions come up when we sit for meditation. Meditation is supposed to be benign and health-optimizing.

One way to deal with the shock is to stop, but then we lose the wonderful benefits of meditation. What is more optimal is to learn where is our edge in meditation, just as we do for asana. As we get more proficient and experienced with meditation, if things are coming up that are difficult to handle, we learn when to shorten our time sitting, when to add in more physically comforting and boundary-enhancing asana, and how to release the negative stuff that is arising without it impacting our lives or relationships.

The challenge is that it is precisely the steady, intense practice over time that gives us the insight to know when the practice is too much at a particular time. For me, finding the edge where I can expand perfectly can be a challenge, but is ultimately and completely worth my while.

For some of the alleged dark sides of practice, try entering into your favorite search engine “meditation side effects.” Then read with appropriate skepticism; it is the internet after all, and you should be as skeptical about the claims of the negative aspects as you might be or once have been of the potential benefits of the practices.

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Satgurus and Upagurus, Teachers and Teachings

In Paths to God, Ram Dass speaks of satgurus and upagurus.  A satguru is the true teacher.  The upaguru is anyone who teaches us something, which, when we are truly open to recognizing the good in all, is literally every one.

The satguru may refer to that within us that is the power, or the essential pulsation, or the light, or the illuminative wisdom, or the heart unbound by space and time that leads us to know the true Self.  As such, the satguru unfolds the means to experience the love that the satguru is/experiences.  The very rarest of individuals do not have to make any effort either through the various yoga practices (yama, niyama, asana, pranayama, pratyahara, etc.) or practices in another spiritual tradition to experience the fullness of consciousness unbound by self, or time, or space.  The rest of us must engage in shifting our lives to align better with nature to experience the highest bliss of being.  For this, we need teachers and we receive, if we are paying attention, teachings.

Sometimes a person will will recognize the satguru embodied in a particular human form, as Ram Dass has with Neem Karoli Baba.  Sometimes, the teachers illuminating our journey are acharyas, great spiritual teachers who illuminate pathways and practices for finding the satguru within ourselves and in others.  They are important teachers for many and a profound influence, but except to the extent that we are all the satguru, they are not “gurus,” nor do they hold themselves out as such.   I think of my primary teachers–those I have studied with personally and a couple, like Ram Dass and J. Krishnamurti, whose writings have deeply shifted me–as acharyas.  That they may have human foibles does not diminish the power of what I have learned from them and the joy I have experienced and shared from studying with them.

Other people we meet — all of them — are upagurus; we can learn from everyone and anyone.  That is what Quakers are taught and seek to practice; that is what Ram Dass is offering for us to consider in both Paths to God and in more detail in Be Love Now. Sometimes we meet a stranger just for a moment, but the stranger in that moment exhibits such grace, that the stranger is one of our teachers for life.  It is by being open and spacious that we get the opportunity to recognize those who have just one perfect teaching for us.  When we are closed off, we can miss both teachers and teachings.

If we are open enough to seeing the light in everyone, we will also find that even those that trouble us can help us better respond in the highest.  Those are the ones Ram Dass calls “teachings” instead of “teachers.”   And those who will trouble us will come.  We will meet someone and that person will push our buttons.  Perhaps the person demonstrates too strongly some behavior or trait we don’t like in ourselves.  What a great teaching that can be.  When I see such a reflection of myself, I know that when I respond or act in similar ways, I am out of alignment, and it is a great motivator to release the behavior or trait.

Perhaps someone shows up to help us reenact an old emotional pattern that has not served.  That someone is the laboratory upaguru who has arrived to give us the opportunity to discover whether this time around we are able better able to embody the principles that we are studying.  In being faced with our old stuff, we are given an opportunity, by changing how we respond, to dissolve the old patterns (samskaras) that, if not dissolved by practice, commit us to perpetuate the suffering resulting from our past actions (karma).

Sometimes the upagurus come from the past.  They are seeing you through the filter of their own past and have reappeared for something on their own journey.   In such people, we perhaps get a teaching that reminds us why we are seeking to better align, why we have sought to shift and change old patterns.  We might also meet in an upaguru who has been part of our past someone who has shifted and grown and inspires us to go further on the path, sharing it for a while.  Those who are parts of our life for a long time, I think generally serve as both teachers and teachings, and we are the same for them.

With regard to everyone we meet, from an embodied satguru to the most troublesome, the more we are open, the more we hold all that we encounter in what John Friend calls “luminous spaciousness,” the more able we will be both to recognize the true teachers and to learn from the teachings.

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Bare Bones of the Trees (and Pratyahara)

One of the things that I appreciate most about winter is being able to see the bare articulation of the shape of the tree in the absence of its leaves. A dormant tree looks very different from a leafless, lifeless tree. The dormant tree still has a vibrancy to it.

As I enjoyed the beauty of the trees in Stanton Park this morning on my walk to work, I thought about pratyahara (withdrawal of or from the senses), which is the fifth step of Patanjali”s eight-limbed path of yoga and the bridge between life and physical practice (the first four limbs consist of ethical observances and restraints, asana, and breathing practices) and meditation. I have been led to contemplate the practice and meaning of pratyahara since the last meditation retreat I attended.

From a renunciate perspective, pratyahara entails withdrawing from that which stimulates our senses. A renunciate would simplify and restrict what he or she takes into his or her system to free the mind from stimulation and make it easier to go into a space of meditation.

Being careful to eat lightly, avoiding the stimulation of electronic entertainment, finding a quiet place to sit, and shutting our eyes before we begin meditating is part of the practice of pratyahara that all of us who practice meditation do as a matter of course.

From a tantric perspective, I think pratyahara fits into our practice a little differently than for someone seeking to be on a reunciate path. We may definitely choose to minimize undue or excessive stimulation because certain types or amounts of stimulation feel out of alignment with our practices. For me, more than a certain amount of sense stimulation and certain types of stimulation can numb my celebration of and experience the spirit. Refining what I take into my system so I feel better able to live fully and celebrate and see the play of consciousness is different than renouncing objects that stimulate the senses or sense impressions themselves, as being less real than spirit. It is not renouncing things as unreal; it is picking and refining what to experience to better recognize and remember spirit. For the great siddhas, withdrawal from stimulation would not be necessary because they do not lose sight of spirit by either the cravings of the senses or being overwhelmed by reactions to stimulation of the senses.

The trees seemed to me this morning to help elucidate this principle. The trees aren’t acting out of ego or greed or yearning to find happiness from the outside because of an emptiness on the inside. They are always open to the light and the rain. In winter, when they are dormant, they are not reaching for the light and rain or hungering for spring. They are there in all of their beauty open to receive nourishment when it comes. In spring, when the leaves start to bud and open, it is because of the light and the rain, but the essence of being a tree does not change or get distorted by going inward and resting or by opening to burgeoning growth.

When we can simply open to all that is around us as spirit (beyond my capacities except at the rarest of times), then we can be open to the fullness of what stimulates the senses and still be practicing pratyahara. As long as we are swayed from the recognition and delight of spirit by stimulation of the senses, then we need to practice withdrawing on a grosser level to help us find the space of still being where we can be in the world of the senses without being tangled up and bound by it as such.

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45-Minute Savasana

Yesterday morning, when I came out of savasana following my regular a.m. practice, one of my cats was happily stretched the length of my side with his chin resting on my upper arm. He had not been there when I first moved into savasana. I looked at the clock and realized that I had been in savasana for 45 minutes, which was ample time for the cat to get comfortable. It would be, perhaps, more accurate to say I had been in savasana for several minutes (exact number of minutes unknown) and many more minutes blissfully asleep.

I very rarely fall asleep in savasana. Falling asleep in savasana regularly is a pretty good indicator of sleep deprivation, which is something I make an effort to avoid for my overall health and happiness.

On Saturday night I had stayed out fairly late, enjoying a meal, followed by dessert and book-browsing with a friend. When I got home at around 11:30 I felt a strong need to write in my journal about my initial reaction to the tragic shooting in Arizona. The cats were excited that I was awake at that hour, so I also spent some extra time petting them. This meant I was awake about two hours later than is usual for me.

The morning wake up sound (currently a recording of the Sri Rudrum) went off at its usual 5:57 a.m. Oof. The temptation was high just to turn off the sound and go back to sleep.

I know from long experience that the next several days will be better if I get up and do my regular hour to an hour and a half morning practice, which consists of a little asana, some pranayama, meditation and meditation-related practices, and savasana, and then trust that I will find an opportunity for a quick nap later in the day. My practice is my center, my delight, my exploration, my grounding; at this point, I come close to saying it is an essential part of who I am. When I have a busy day scheduled–as I did yesterday–it is still almost unthinkable to miss the practice, though on rare occasions out of necessity I will shorten it to just 30 minutes of meditation.

It turned out that the end of my practice turned into the nap I needed. The practice followed by the blissfully long rest was, though, far more what I needed than staying in bed for longer and wondering when and whether I could fit in a practice later.

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A Secret Garden

I was at a meeting at another agency that was built in the years when civil service was a respected nd honored activity. The garden is clearly maintained, but I have never seen anyone in it, and wonder whether entrance by anyone other than maintenance is permitted. Does the solitary air of the garden make it feel more personal and sweet? Or does it seem isolated and less intriguing because of the absence of people?

I wonder whether people who are naturally drawn to meditate would be the ones who would answer yes to the first question and no to the second.

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Lunchtime Idyll

I did not have much time for a break today as I had a meeting scheduled for 1:30 pm. I always try to take at least a short break from work in the middle of the day, including a walk and some time to sit quietly. I am far more productive and have a better day all around when I do.

One of my favorite places to go is directly across the Mall to the US Botanical Gardens. When I sit and close my eyes, it feels and smells like I have gone someplace warm, beautiful, and exotic. I had only time to take a few good breaths and write a couple of sentences in my journal, but that brief interlude can be all that I need to bring renewed enthusiasm to my work.

Do you have an idyllic place you can go for a few moments? If you cannot leave your office, do you remember to close your eyes and breathe or engage in other simple meditation?

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Walking Holiday

Walking has always been my preferred form of getting from one place to another; if time and distance require it, I intersperse a lift from bus, metro, or taxi on one end or in the middle of a walk.  All I really wanted to do with my time off–I don’t have to go to the office or teach class until January 3rd–is to walk and practice and visit with friends and family and look at art and cook and read and study and eat and play with the cats and write and photograph and dance (an open-ended term) and maybe knit or draw.  For me, walking is walking in itself; time to practice bhavana — deep contemplation; time to practice japa–repetition of mantra; opportunity to open the mind and senses to allow the flourishing of creative projects–mostly writing and photography; a way of going from one place to another for shopping, working, visiting, etc; and sometimes an activity to share with friends.  And of course walking to get food is wonderful both for stimulating the appetite and for aiding digestion.

Yesterday, we were given 90 minutes of administrative leave.  On leaving the office at 3:30, I walked west from my building to the last Thursday until spring of the Penn Quarter Farmer’s Market.  I didn’t really need anything, but wanted to support the farmers who were braving the cold, so I bought a wild oyster to eat while I stood there and a bag of arugula and a few apples and pears.  From there I walked back east, traversing the Capitol grounds to East Capitol Street and stopped in and browsed at Capitol Hill Books.  It was turning dark when I walked east into Lincoln Park before turning north to go home.

In less than an hour, a good friend will arrive at the door in her walking shoes.  We are going to head out on foot to the Mall to talk and to look at art and to share a meal in Penn Quarter or back on the Hill.  Later in the day, I will walk along the bus route to Dupont or walk to the metro to go to a Christmas Eve potluck dinner at Friends Meeting of Washington.

Tomorrow, Christmas Day, I will celebrate Christmas in the manner of New York Jews (Chinese food and a movie).  After walking through Lincoln Park and down Kentucky Avenue SE (where are some of the most beautiful trees in the neighborhood) to get a massage, I’ll walk to the U.S. Botanical Gardens to meet a friend I have known since third grade who is town with some of her NY friends for the holidays.  We will probably walk up to Chinatown after that.  Then I’ll go see a movie.  Whether I walk or take the bus will depend on whether it is dark by the time the movie lets out.

On Boxing Day, I will go to Georgetown to volunteer at the Lantern Bookshop.  I will walk some of the way and take the bus the rest of the way.  The length of the walk will depend on the amount of time I spend making breakfast, caring for plants and cats and house, and writing.  How much of the return trip ends up being on foot will depend on how many books I decide to take home from the Lantern.  Sometimes I only get one or two.

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Watching the Clouds Dissipate

Tonight (technically very early tomorrow morning), will be the first full lunar eclipse on the winter solstice in 350 years. Part of me wants the sky to be clear so that I can witness this extraordinary event. The other part yearns for a cloudy forecast so I can stay warm in my bed at 3 a.m. without feeling that it would be my own inaction that led me to miss the eclipse.

I think we all feel this way about our practice sometimes. We want to have the great openings that come from a deep and steady practice, but it would be oh so nice if they came without effort. And an excuse not to practice that comes from somewhere out of our control makes it so much easier to accept not getting the benefits.

Unlike a cloud cover blocking our view of the moon, though, there aren’t many things that actually prevent practicing, although they might change what kind of practices we can do at a particular time in our lives.

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